Monthly Archives: August 2015

How to breathe with purpose

I’ve always wondered about this.

When someone sees you squeezing yourself through a narrow gap, why do they tell you to ‘Breathe in’?

If you do so, your lungs fill with air and from what I know about the way balloons work, this expands your chest, making you bigger, not smaller – and therefore less, rather than more, likely to get wherever you want to go.

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Call me old-fashioned, but wouldn’t it make more sense to tell you to breathe out?

After all, in one of those lateral thinking puzzles, it’s letting the pressure out of a truck’s tyres which allows it to pass under a bridge which is otherwise slightly too low.

Now, until I raised this subject, it’s pretty unlikely that you were aware you were breathing.

We both know you are, though.

(If you’re not, I’m talking to myself.)

Respiration is one of those essential things you generally do without thinking, but perhaps there’s sense in making yourself rather more conscious of it now and then?

Really deep breaths feed your brain and body with vital oxygen, and breathing out expels carbon dioxide.

That’s a pretty neat trick.

Who knew you could turn one gas into the other so quickly and effortlessly?

Anyway, taking more mindful deep breaths can also be a smart way to imagine yourself taking in goodness, and getting rid of badness by breathing out again.

So breathe in through your nose, breathe out through your mouth, deliberately filling and emptying your lungs while you tell your worries where to go.

(To avoid strange looks, probably best to do this last one under your breath, though.)

Try to take the time to breathe consciously today.

How to take the imaginary train out of this place

If you were having One of Those Days, how do you like the idea of me being able to ‘take you away from all this’?

Imagine me having the power to whisk you away from your worries.

Sounds good, doesn’t it?

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When things aren’t going well for you, the very thought of stilling your mind so the negatives fade away seems an impossibility.

Just like a scratched vinyl record, your thinking gets stuck painfully and repetitively in a loop…

in a loop…

in a loop…

in a loop…

However, while I’m afraid I don’t have the magic powers that would be necessary to send your self-defeating thinking packing permanently, I may have a suggestion that could provide temporary relief.

If you were physically in a place in which you didn’t want to be, you could buy a ticket and get on a train somewhere else.

Granted, circumstances may mean you have to come back later, but for a brief period you could get away from everything.

Now, it may not be practical to head off on a real day-trip at the drop of a hat, but I think you have the ability to imagine yourself doing so.

On a bad day, it might make sense, therefore, to visualise taking a few hours off from worrying.

See yourself buying a ticket, getting on the train, sitting down, looking out of the window as you pull away from the platform.

Really try to see it in as much rich detail as possible, and experience that feeling, however temporary it may end up being, of leaving your troubles behind you.

If you can pull this off, even twenty minutes of calm can give you a sense of clarity and relief.

And of course the great thing about boarding an imaginary train is that it always arrives on time, and it’s never standing room only.

You used to know all about bouncing back

In psychiatrist Dr Tim Cantopher’s thoughtful book ‘Depressive Illness – The Curse of the Strong’ he tells the tale of going wind-surfing with friends who were highly experienced practitioners of this exacting sport. He and one other member of their party were, however, Absolute Beginners.

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While the others tore through the waves with the greatest of ease, Tim and the second novice fell off again and again, which probably wasn’t much fun for either of them.

Well in Tim’s case, it definitely wasn’t, as after this one attempt he decided that windsurfing wasn’t for the sport for him.

The following year though, he went away with these same friends again, determined to stay on the beach this time.

Like last time, the other beginner was one of the party, only – guess what? – he’d stuck at it and was now racing around with the best of them.

He’d bounced back in fine style.

We can’t be good at everything. My clarinet lessons didn’t do much for me. I was always the last to be picked for sports teams at school.

There’s something to be said for tenacity, however – for sticking at something through thick and thin – and to do this when it feels as if you are failing, I think you have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.

You may have done this literally if you learned to ride a bike.

You’ll have experienced it (but won’t remember) as you tried to form your first few words: few of us are born with faultless diction.

My point is that you’ve certainly bounced back from adversity in the past, and if you’ve done it before, you can do it again.

What worked before probably have involved a degree of bloody-mindedness.

You WERE going to ride that bike.

Perhaps the same principle can see you through other periods when it feels as though you’re falling off rather a lot?

Have something to look forward to, today, right now

In 13th century Middle English the word ‘gol’ meant ‘boundary’ or ‘limit’, which is probably how you’d have referred to the perimeter of your settlement, and perhaps also what you’d have called the furthest distance you could travel in one day.

Over time an ‘a’ got added, giving us the more familiar ‘goal’, which we’d now either use to mean the area that’s targeted by players of team sports as they attempt to score points, or of course the result we hope to achieve through some kind of action.

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In the English game of cricket, the batsman aims to knock the ball out of the park (mixing my sporting metaphors) by having it cross the ‘boundary’, either direct from his bat through the air, gaining six runs, or having come into contact with the field along the way, in which case four runs are awarded.

When we talk about goals in everyday life, however, we generally see them as temporary limits.

Once they’ve been reached, there’s usually always more to be done another day.

The bigger the goal, the harder it can be to reach, and there are times in life when a low mood restricts your ability to achieve most things, let alone the kind of auspicious targets which you may have set for yourself during happier times.

Goals can be helpful though; particularly so when they’re something to look forward to.

So carry on setting them even when you’re at a low ebb, but make them smaller.

Miniscule even.

But do make them specific and achievable.

It could mean telling yourself that you’ll have a relaxing bath tonight at 9pm, say.

Or you might schedule a 15 minute walk at lunchtime to buy a birthday card for a good friend.

Don’t be over-ambitious, however.

We all have our gols.

It’s the teeny pieces that hold things together

When my Dad and his brother were young they had (what seemed to me, when I discovered it many years later) a huge Meccano construction set.

My own brother and I were in awe of it, even though it had grown a little corroded when it became our turn to play with it.

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Housed in a big old wooden box, it exuded an oily smell, leaving your fingers bronzed and powdery with rust after you’d handled its parts.

There were the flat green struts of all lengths, each with its series of holes drilled at regular intervals.

There were the ‘L’ shaped sections, again with holes along their lengths, which added strength to your construction.

There were gears, axles and cranks of all sizes.

And big clunky clockwork motors which drove your crane, robot or cable car system.

(A lever on these could throw them into reverse gear when required. Even robots have to backtrack at times.)

But of course none of these component parts would have been of any use whatsoever without the vital nuts and bolts which allowed them to be fastened together.

As individuals, perhaps you and I are a little like single components in a Meccano set.

We’re all different, each ready to make our own unique contribution to the world we live in.

Without the nuts and bolts, however, we’d simply be a collection of loose parts.

So what is it that connects us together? I think it’s our relationships with one another.

Our friendships.

Our respect.

Our love.

Sometimes, quite simply, our exchanged nods in the street.

The Meccano set’s nuts and bolts were its tiniest parts, not terribly inspiring really, but it made huge sense to look after them.

What connects you to the people around you? Maybe it’s a good time to recognise the importance of the connections themselves, perhaps to do whatever it takes to ensure they’re in good working order?

Don’t allow them to get rusty.

Why today’s a good day to be curiously curious

You may agree with me that being sure to keep on learning new things can play an important part in keeping you healthy and (at least relatively) happy.

A desire to acquire knowledge is one of the ways in which a therapist might know that someone is doing well, whereas an aversion to new experiences may be a sign that all is not so well.

So if that’s the case, why did curiosity apparently kill the cat? What’s meant by this well-known proverb?

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In fact it started life in a different form.

Back in 16th century England, it was expressed as ‘care killed the cat’, with the care (pay attention now) actually meaning ‘worry’ or ‘sorrow’.

Who knew?

What began as an exhortation to ‘don’t worry, be happy’ became a warning about the hazards of unnecessary experimentation.

Now this is almost certainly a reasonable admonition were you to be thinking about exploring an electricity substation. Especially on a rainy day, wearing an aluminium foil suit.

In general however, isn’t it more the case that staying curious is a Good Thing? I think it is.

Do all you can today to learn new things.

Go to different places. Listen to a different radio station. Pick up a magazine you’ve never read before.

Ask people ‘Why?’, and then ‘Why?’ again when they answer. Cook something you’ve never cooked. Drink something you’ve never drunk.

Read a poem. Ask a friend to tell you something they never have before. Look at the labels in your clothes to find out where they were made. Find out why the place where you live is called what it is.

Today’s a day to be as curious as you can.

Who knows what you’ll discover?

Stop and take a proper look around you

I’m at the same old table in the same old coffee shop.

The air conditioning unit whooshes its low note. From downstairs there’s the urgent frothing sound of milk being steam-heated.

The usual music, a kind of gentle Irish instrumental track at the moment, is piping from the speaker in the corner.

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Through the window I can see the sun shining, casting shadows of the plane trees’ leaves on the shop fronts across the road.

Their windows carry the reflections of pedestrians, some rushing to get somewhere, others idling as though they have all day. Perhaps they do.

Pigeons glide by outside. Now, they do have all day.

A young guy just came in, laptop in hand, hunting around the skirting boards.

I’ve seen this behaviour before, so I told him where the place’s one power point is hidden (behind the brown leather sofa in the corner).

He thanked me.

It was warm when I came in, but the air-con is now making it comfortably cool.

From where I sit, I can count no fewer than 23 ceiling lights. That’s a lot.

Only one isn’t working. That’s not bad.

I’m here nearly every morning, yet how often have I noticed (properly noticed) my surroundings? How often have I taken a proper, thorough look around me?

Almost never.

When you’re struggling through a bad patch it’s normal to think that your world is full of nothing, as hollow as a foolish man’s promise.

But of course it’s not.

The richness that’s clear to see on a sunny day is still there on an overcast one. If you look for it.

So as you progress through the day, keep your eyes open.

When you feel good, you automatically take more notice of things.

But it works the other way too.

Taking proper notice of things can, itself, perk you up.

Hello from me to you, on video

Although I write a lot of Moodnudges posts (four a week) and often talk about my experiences, I’m aware I don’t write much about the other stuff that’s going on in my life.

Because of this, it would be easy to imagine I spend all day observing things in order to write Moodnudges posts, whereas in fact there’s plenty more happening.

Like this new Moodnudges video for instance:

Part of this reluctance to open up more is that as a kid I was brought up to believe that talking about yourself was selfish, and that in conversation you should therefore listen much more than you should speak.

Although the ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus said “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak”, I think I started out in life believing the ratio should be more like 20:1 rather than 2:1.

As I grew up, though, I started to see that a good conversation should be like a good dance.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with simply watching someone else dance, but people get the most from it when they dance together as partners.

I think the same goes for conversations.

My Moodnudges posts may, of course, seem like a one-way street. They could feel like monologues.

But I hope they don’t.

I write with the goal of creating a conversation with you in your mind. I want my words to spark your own thoughts, so you feel engaged rather than just a passive reader.

Today, though, and just occasionally in the future, I want to give you a small glimpse of what’s happening in my part of the world outside the Moodnudges blog.

For the last two months I’ve been excitedly working on a brand new book which will see the light of day later this year.

It’s a self-help workbook with a difference, and a few people who’ve already tried an early prototype found it worked for them. Always good.

More on the book soon.

But the other thing I quickly want to mention is that on a recent trip that Alex and I took up to Toronto, I recorded a short video that explains how Moodnudges works, and how the free four-times-a-week emails can help anyone whose mood needs lifting.

Please check it out and – very important – share it with someone who might also like to hear from me.

It should help them, and it will also help me in my mission to reach out to as many people as possible.

Thanks for allowing me to talk a little more personally today.

It means a lot.

Does a friendship need fixing?

I don’t quite know why, but it seems to be one of life’s incontrovertible laws that not all friendships are created equal.

Indeed, why do we become friends in the first place with some people but not others?

Clearly you’re not going to become best buddies with absolutely everyone you run into during the course of a day (fortunately – just think of the outrageous amounts you’d have to pay out for birthday cards) but, like me, you may have wondered about the process which can turn some acquaintances into friends, but not others.

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And again, of course, there are friends – and there are best friends. Part of what makes someone a best friend seems to be that you really ‘get’ one another. It feels as though you understand them, and that in return they understand you.

Best friendship seems to some extent being unconditional. You’ll be there for each other through fair weather and foul. And someone who falls into this category is to be cherished and valued. You may not totally need each other right now, but there may well come a time when you will.

I think that someone who truly gets you is the equivalent of owning a priceless asset. If you’d inherited an oil painting worth millions, would you leave it out in the rain? Would you ignore it? Would you allow it to fall into disrepair?

The same goes for special friendships.

So if you’ve let things slide recently, perhaps today’s the day to do a little picture restoration?

How to avoid catastrophising

It used to be that you needed to go to a funfair or carnival to see amusingly distorted images of yourself, but now many personal computers allow you to produce them right on your desktop. In simpler times the Hall of Mirrors presented you with curved reflecting surfaces which squeezed or stretched your features, generally with hilarious consequences (if you like that sort of thing).

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As I say however, you can now do a similar thing with your webcam – although this may not be entirely advisable if you’re of a nervous disposition.

If you’re familiar with the principle of optical distortions, it’s perhaps not surprising that the same kind of thing can apply to thoughts. David Burns, who wrote the well-regarded book ‘The Feeling Good Handbook’ after studying under Aaron Beck, one of the fathers of cognitive therapy, listed a number of ‘cognitive distortions’ – what might in simpler terms be labelled faulty thinking.

One of these is ‘catastrophising’ – the tendency to assume that the very worst is always going to happen, no matter how unlikely this in fact may be. I’m afraid it’s an easy habit to slip in to, especially when you’re already viewing the world through morose-tinted glasses.

‘My whole life is a total mess’ is the kind of thing you could catch yourself thinking, but it’s the words ‘whole’ and ‘total’ that need challenging. Whilst it’s of course possible that ‘some’ of your life might indeed be ‘a bit of’ a mess, it would take some doing for absolutely everything to be completely falling apart.

So if you catch yourself catastrophising, it’s worth asking yourself if you’re holding up a mirror to your mind that’s providing a true view, or one which is producing an image equivalent to the reflection that makes you look like you’ve got hamster cheeks.

I’ve got quite enough of that going on without the whacky mirror, thank you very much.